Political legitimacy was a shifting concept in medieval England. On the one hand were the tangible aspects of power such as control over appointments and the purse; on the other were the symbolic attributes of power. Baronial rebels were able to gain control over the material aspects of political power on more than one occasion, and they also tried to establish control over the symbolic aspects of legitimacy. Here, they usually failed, for medieval people generally failed to accept baronial use of political symbols as legitimating future developments. Monarchs, on the other hand, were more successful in exploiting the symbolic aspects of kingship to further legitimate their power.
The simultaneous success and failure of royal and baronial efforts at establishing legitimacy bear further scrutiny. After viewing the problem of the establishment of legitimacy, this essay focuses on two related episodes during the reign of Richard II: the attempted canonizations of King Edward II and Richard FitzAlan, earl of Arundel. Richard II's reign is chosen for three reasons. First, there was a clearly articulated struggle between king and barons that was fought out in both the physical and symbolic arenas. Second, the process of political canonization produced a royal and a baronial saint during the reign. Although not premeditated on either side, there was a conjunction of events and a desire by the king and the barons to manipulate the symbolic aspects of these events during the reign. The final reason for subjecting saintly symbolism in Richard's reign to examination is that the process of political canonization reached its zenith then.